THE Alliance Party, which appears to be rising in popularity, had its annual conference last weekend. Naomi Long gave her usual articulate address to the assembled delegates and the number of yellow ties on display threatened an outbreak of jaundice. 

Three things seem to be bothering the Alliance Party at present: Patricia O’Lynn, the Good Friday Agreement and a hierarchy of votes. 

The party’s Patricia O’Lynn unseated the DUP’s Mervyn Storey at the Assembly election ten months ago. This must have been painful for Storey, since O’Lynn is young, intelligent and a woman, whereas Storey would get null points under all three headings. But now O’Lynn has decided to resign her seat and Storey has jumped in to question her commitment to the constituents who elected her.  O’Lynn responded by suggesting that Mervyn was “in desperate need of a hug”. A lot of people, I’m confident, would welcome a hug from Ms O’Lynn, but I can’t see Mervyn in the line-up. 

At the same time, O’Lynn’s retirement is a serious loss to Alliance. The word is Alliance Councillor Brian Pope hopes to be co-opted to replace her, which is interesting as his surname cries out for time-honoured No Pope Here gags. 

Also, Naomi Long has recently been subjected to some vitriolic online abuse, much of it misogynistic. What exactly was said I don’t know, nor do I know how they’ll fix the problem. 

As Alliance see it, their votes in Stormont are worth less than that of other MLAs. I’m guessing that this is referring to the famous/infamous Petition of Concern, where nationalists and unionists have to be in agreement before an issue can go forward. This has led to problems, like the fact that by sitting on his hands the good knight Jeffrey Donaldson has paralysed the Stormont Assembly and Executive. 

The reason for the Petition of Concern was the belief that it would force Executive co-operation. That hasn’t happened for the past ten months, which is a pity. Hence the Alliance Party gripe that their votes count for less, since they don’t declare as nationalist or unionist.

Which gets us to the meat of the matter. An awful lot of people will tell you that the whole constitutional thing is a distraction, our politicians should ignore it, take off their coats and get stuck into the bread-and-butter stuff –  health, education, infrastructure. Certainly an awful lot of Alliance Party people will recite that line to you. 

It has the ring of common sense; unfortunately, its reality is that it’s myopic and verging on mad. NEI was created over a century ago so that unionists could keep a headlock on the constitutional question. When nationalists tried to demand their civil rights as British citizens, they very quickly found that this was inextricably linked, in the minds of unionists, with the constitutional question. 

That was nearly forty years ago. Today, the fact that Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill is the First Minister-designate has played a major part in the DUP’s reluctance to return to Stormont. It’d be great if the constitutional question were permanently settled in a democratic way – give Ireland back to the Irish, as Paul McCartney put it. But that’s not how things are, so of course the constitutional question still matters and by sitting on the constitutional fence  the Alliance Party will inevitably get splinters in their backside. 

I’m continually astonished that so many intelligent people don’t get this. Maybe if they considered the absurdity of asking Ukraine to concentrate on bread-and-butter issues the Ukrainian answer might help clarify the importance of constitutional matters.